Even the central plot device of 11/22/63 screams Stephen King: a portal to the past, located in the storage closet of a Maine diner. For many the name Stephen King conjures images of human behavior at its worst—enough rereadings of Misery will do that to a person. But the master of horror is equally capable of probing the best parts of human nature, like the fact that the only two men who know about the existence of this time-travel gateway use it for a mission they believe will better the planet: saving President John F. Kennedy from an assassin’s bullet.
That’s the premise of King’s monolithic book, and it’s where we begin with the J.J. Abrams–produced, eight-part adaptation that premiered on Hulu yesterday, lightly renamed 11.22.63. If you’re not hooked after this first episode, I don’t know what to tell you. Boasting an all-star cast (with James Franco and Chris Cooper at the helm), the miniseries is fast-paced, beautifully shot, and stocked with King easter eggs. And if it stays at all true to the book, which producers have promised it will, there are a hundred more reasons to tune in. Here are just a few.
Genres for everyone!
At first, diner-induced time travel would seem to put this one squarely in the realm of science fiction. And there are certainly significant elements of it, including a fascinating twist on the mechanics of time travel. Every time mild-mannered English teacher Jake Epping (Franco) steps into the past, he wipes away whatever he did on his last trip. Additionally, no matter how long he stays in the ’60s, when he returns to our time, only two minutes have passed.
That aside, the sci-fi machinations are just one genre King wades into here. 11/22/63 is also equal parts historical fiction, mystery, and thriller, with a dash of romance propelled by the Lindy hop. You never quite know what you’ll be hit with next, and unfortunately for Jake, neither does he.
Nostalgia without the glossy sheen.
What so often happens with period pieces, particularly set in the “halcyon” days of the ’50s and ’60s, is sanitization. It’s easy to get caught up in all the great clothes, stately cars, and retro music, and forget about the myriad unpleasantries of the past. King doesn’t do that, and judging from the first episode, neither does the miniseries. In one memorable moment on Jake’s road trip from Maine to Dallas, he encounters the ugliness of the era when he almost uses the wrong option between the segregated restrooms.
The past doesn’t want to be changed.
Beyond the suspense of Jake’s Lee Harvey Oswald espionage, the primary driver of suspense is the past itself. You see, it knows how things are supposed to happen, and it goes to great lengths to derail our hero’s quest, whether it’s through a messenger’s verbal warning or a violent catastrophe aimed squarely at him. Jake’s not just fighting the clock as it ticks toward the moment in 1963 when everything changed, he’s fighting the resistance of time itself. It’s a remarkable complication to what already might be a fool’s errand, and it adds a level of eeriness characteristic of a King story. All of that is to say: Jake shouldn’t be here. But you should.